Winnie Au is an award-winning fashion, lifestyle, portrait and dog photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. The northern Illinois native and Boston University alum has made her mark on the fashion industry shooting for clients such as GQ, Refinery29, Calvin Klein and Lucky magazine.
What are the most common misconceptions about being a fashion photographer in New York City?
I guess it depends on who you are. I feel like people who are outside of our industry tend to think that the photo world is really glamorous and that every photo shoot is in a white studio with loud music playing. And that maybe you’ve got some sort of European accent, or you have a one word name and no last name. I think sometimes people underestimate how much work it is to be a fashion photographer (or really any successful working photographer), and I have a lot of respect for everyone in our industry. While photo shoots are a lot of fun and the environments can and tend to be beautiful, there are a ton of shoots in less than ideal environments where you’re working really long hours and pushing yourself physically to get those amazing photographs. I think that being a photographer can sound really cushy, but it is work, and what most people forget is that a photographer’s job doesn’t end after a photo shoot. You’re a small business owner, and every minute before and after a shoot is spent running that business.
You shoot often for Refinery 29 – how did you link up with their team?
I started working with them after I sent a few email newsletter campaigns to them showing them some fashion lookbooks and portraits I had shot. The first story they assigned me was a street style portrait story about City Hall weddings in NYC. The story was a lot of fun to shoot, and when it ran online, readers loved the combination of love stories, fashion, and people from all walks of life. So I would say that I was lucky, because the first story I did with them happened to do really well. We’ve been working together on shoots ever since, and it’s been a lot of fun!
What are the major differences shooting for online and print? Do you have a preference?
When you shoot for online publications, the editors tend to ask for more photos, the turnaround times are faster and the stories run sooner after you shoot them. What’s nice is the immediacy of seeing your story up only a few weeks or days after you shot it. And the fact that you can shoot a seasonal story during the season that it will run. So no need to make models or subjects wear summer clothes in the dead of winter! When you shoot for print, you typically have fewer images published. This is good because it’s less post processing work (per image), but sometimes there are great photos that never get to be seen because there aren’t enough pages for the story.
I like both media for different reasons. It’s fun to see your stories online and get that immediate feedback that you don’t really get when something goes in print. You get a very tangible way to track your story, through things such as likes, notes, shares, and comments.
At the same time, seeing your images published and printed in a magazine is always very satisfying. I like that the format of a printed piece can be much larger than a computer screen. Almost every photo looks better when it’s larger! I started working in the photo industry when everyone still shot film, so I have a soft spot for tangible things. I love seeing blogs and websites do so well that they’re able to print a limited edition print version of their content. I imagine that a lot of print editions in the future will be more collector’s/fine art pieces vs. everyday magazines.
Immersed in clothing, shoes, and models all day long, do you enjoy fashion?
I guess what’s funny about me is I’m not really a traditional “fashion” person. I didn’t grow up reading fashion magazines; I didn’t dress well when I was younger. I’ve never really worn makeup, nor do I know how to do my own hair. I don’t know the names and/or collections of every famous designer. I was really a tomboy as a child and teenager, and I was more interested in science, math, video games, horror novels and technology when I was young. What I do love are things that look good, and I love making things look good. And I love working with passionate people. Fashion is fun because it brings together an amazing group of people who are all very skilled at a specific thing, and who are all very much in love with what they are doing. When you bring all these pieces together and make something awesome, it feels really good.
Who are your favorite designers? Favorite places to shop?
I tend to buy a lot of simple basics and then mix them with vintage pieces and accessories. For basics, I like Madewell, Zara, All Saints, Topshop, American Apparel and Free People. I’m pretty lazy when it comes to shopping, but I can’t shop online because I have to try everything on. So a lot of stores that I love are smaller boutiques in my neighborhood that I’ve discovered while I’m out walking my dog. I love this vintage store in Williamsburg (my hood) called Stella Dallas that has a great selection of pretty much everything. Amazingly curated, it feels like a boutique, but it has great dresses, military shirts, plaid tops, cozy sweaters – the list goes on. They also have an awesome home store next door called 10 Ft. Single which has amazing textiles – rugs, fabrics, curtains, kids’ clothes. I’m a sucker for vintage patterns, and they have a lot of them! I also love the linen line of clothing at Pip-Squeak Chapeau in Greenpoint, everything at Beautiful Dreamer & Joinery, and designers like Ace & Jig, which are sold at Pilgrim Surf + Supply.
What are some of your favorite things to shoot when you are not working?
I photograph all of my meals – I’ve been doing that since 2005. I’ve always been obsessed with food, and photographing my meals has been a personal project that I do as an exercise to make not beautiful/not too composed photographs. I post all of the images on a blog, and pretty much my sister and I are the only ones who look at the images. I also love photographing dogs, landscapes and strangers on the street. I started out in photography studying photojournalism so a lot of my early imagery was street photography, and I still really enjoy going to new places, exploring them and taking pictures throughout the process.
Ultimately, what are your goals as a photographer?
Aside from the short-term goals of simply making a living as a commercial photographer, I want to make work that I’m proud of and that connects to other people. I want to be able to work on personal projects throughout my career and hopefully communicate to a lot of people through those projects. For me, the ability to connect with people who you don’t know personally is a very strong thing. It’s kind of like having telepathy. If I can take a photograph and “speak” to someone with whom I’ve never spoken before or met before, then I’ve achieved my goal.
Who has been most inspiring to you as a photographer?
There have been a lot of influences in my photography career:
Photographers who are dead whose work speak to me: I love the composition and the simplicity of Cartier-Bresson and Avedon. I still believe that photographs don’t have to be complicated. A good photograph is a good photograph, and it’s really about capturing truth in your subject matter.
Photographers I’ve worked for who taught me how to be a good photographer: Joshua Dalsimer was the first photographer I ever interned for and assisted, and he showed me how you can make great work and be an awesome person at the same time.
Photographers who are alive and make awesome commercial and fine art work: I love the work of Nadav Kander, and while it’s not super similar to my style, his ability to make impactful images, to create images with his unique style and his overall work ethic and emphasis on always working on personal projects has always been inspiring to me.
If you weren’t carrying a camera around all day, what would you take along with you every day instead?
I’d probably choose to carry around an army of long dogs (two corgis, one basset hound, one mysterious horgi, one dachshund, other suggestions welcome) and a Mary Poppins-style magic carpetbag with snacks in it for me. I have a fear of being hungry and having no access to a bodega. This is totally something that happens to you when you live in NY too long!